A line of at least 60 people huddled under umbrellas in a relentless spring rain in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood. What were they all in line for? As I got closer it dawned on me: free ice cream scoops to mark the opening of Ben & Jerry's Japanese flagship store.
So far on this vacation, I hadn't thought much about sweets. Most restaurants in Japan didn't serve dessert, and if they did, it was usually a sticky, chewy mochi concoction. But I did notice that sweet shops abounded in Kyoto, with displays of beautifully wrapped boxed things—typically mochi sheets wrapped around fillings mostly made of bean paste. But the products all looked the same, a bit sterile, even boring.
The giant subterranean food halls of the Tokyo department stores rival the ones in Paris and other European cities, but about half of what they offer is sweets. While mochi is everywhere, there are also a surprising number of counters selling brand-name European and American chocolates and pastries, all busily supplying Tokyo with buttery, chocolate-laden confections. Fusion as we understand it in the U.S. doesn't really seem to exist in Japan—traditional Japanese food happily coexists next to Western imports. No doubt that’s why there was so much excitement about Ben & Jerry's in Tokyo: It’s a pure expression of foreign culture. But still, getting soggy for a scoop of Chunky Monkey?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above standing in line for food, especially when it's free. Living in San Francisco, I’ve gotten used to waiting patiently to taste the latest trend, whether it’s an obscure French pastry or the newest generation of grilled cheese. Plus, on any day in San Francisco you can have your pick of Humphry Slocombe or Bi-Rite—it turns you into an ice cream snob.
I suppose it’s the same with ramen back home in the States. There’s a ramen shop on every corner in Japan, but in the U.S., it’s a cult dish. Would tourists from Japan watch San Franciscans line up for some chef’s one-night-only ramen special and think we were all crazy? Probably.
Then again, even in a world where most brands are global, there’s one thing that never fails to get people excited: food with the promise of somewhere else.
Photograph by Hayden Gallary